Azariah was not like the other children. He was smaller, much more frail. For all his 12 years, he stood lesser than most. He was a tiny boy, a little shepherd. His hair was not dark or curly like his peers, rather, it glimmered with lighter tones and hung straight and fair. He was a sensitive kid, some could even call him delicate and weak. This was not far from the reality. Some would say he did not belong. Deep inside, the young lad knew it was the truth. Most children in Bethlehem lay sleeping on this early winter’s night, but Azariah stood watch with his father over sheep. His father and the men who worked with him had been delayed in arriving home. For almost three weeks, they had been detained because of the census. The colder desert nights had come and the journey from Hebron had been dank and unforgiving. His beaten clothes, not fit for the winds of a Palestine winter, did little to bring much needed warmth. They had arrived back near Bethlehem and planned to stay in the fields until morning when the market opened. His father, a shepherd his entire life, had brought Azariah on this travelling in hopes of building character in the boy. When he married Azariah’s mother, a Hebrew girl from the Roman territories, he did not expect her death in childbirth, nor did he anticipate that his only son would bring such disappointment and frailty. The harsh life of a shepherd was no place for someone like his son, and with no one to watch over him, he was forced to carry this reminder of God’s judgement upon him throughout the Palestine countryside.
When the light appeared in the sky, no one was sure what to make of it. When the brightness shone above them, they were so afraid. A few sheep, startled by the quick and the unknown brilliance, fled to safety. Azariah wanted to stay and see this marvel which had magically appeared in the night sky, but his father sent him out in the dark to find the flock which had abandoned them to the same night. As Azariah walked into the desert, he did not hear the voices of angels heralding the good news. He did not see the celestial glow from the host which appeared to his father and the other shepherds. He did not take his father’s hand and follow into the town waiting from a distance. He just kept walking and calling and praying he could show his father that he was strong enough and brave enough. Only a few sheep had strayed from the flock, but Herod’s taxes and the expense of traveling for the census meant all were precious and they could not afford to lose even one. As he walked, he thought of the mother he had never met and the taunting of other children. Life was not fun for Azariah. Between a disapproving father and the shame of his debility, he held little in good regard. In temple, he sat and listened to the tales of Moses and David and Isaiah, but it was the words of the other children which stained him with feelings of worthlessness and sorrow. He too, just like his father, held bitterness and contempt for those who had made his life almost not worth living. Such ridicule and endless dampening stole the innocent heart and childlike ways of this little blond boy from Bethlehem.
Azariah grew colder and the desolation of the desert did little to quell his fear and hesitation. He had always preferred being alone, but this night he yearned for the hands of his father, the safety of a greater place. Suddenly, he heard it. The subtle noise of beast was almost invisible, cloaked behind wind and sand and bitter sting. There, alongside an outcropping of rocks, he found the seven sheep that had strayed. Azariah sat down beside them and started to shake. The night had grown darker and colder and met the chill of his heart as he cursed his father for sending him into the desert to die. When the sheep laid down beside him in the sand, he could not believe his eyes. He had never seen such a thing. Azariah remembered what to do. How many times had his father told him to find warmth with each other or the animals, if ever lost in the desert come night? How many times did his father instruct him to stay huddled only until the warmth returned?
“Never sleep on the desert floor,” Azariah recalled. “You will drown in the sand.”
Azariah could feel the heat returning to his skin, as he lay between two ewes and the sun-baked glow of the desert floor. Staring out into the endless sea of ebony, he searched his mind for a way to get back home. Although he had not ventured beyond the dunes, he could not find his way. He raised his head and called out into the deep black. There was no reply, no response. Not even an echo bounced back from the hills which shadowed his path to safety. There was no moon to light his way. No fire in the distance to call him as a beacon. He turned, praying for a new perspective.
It did not appear, but it was not there mere moments before. It filled his eyes with daylight. It was the same brilliance which had scared the sheep into running. He rose up and greeted salvation. The star shone brighter than any other he had ever seen. Its glow reached across the skyline like beams of blue and bright. It was brilliant and full, and for Azariah, it was hope. The dunes glistened with starshine and gave way through the night. The tail of the star seemed to float in the heavens until it focused on one spot. Azariah knew, he just knew. He quickly rounded the sheep and headed into the light. He started out, then he wandered toward the shine, for the star in the sky led his way. When he got back to the pens, he could not find his father. He could not find anyone or anything but a fenced-in mob of white cotton herded into capture. He added his seven blankets into the cage and wandered into the tail of the star. The late night gave little rescue to the answers Azariah searched for. No townsfolk could he question. He looked up and checked the radiance of the beam. It was still with him even though he was home. The star of wonder flickered then to pinpoint, it managed his direction. When Azariah was older and had a child of his own, he would sit his son down and tell him the tale of the littlest Shepherd. We would tell him of the cold desert night and how the sheep gave warmth to see him through. He would tell them of the kings and the stable and the things he saw that night. Most of all, he would tell them of his star and the wonder of how it led him home.
Almost 30 years had passed since Azariah met with that something wonderful. The star in the east had long ago faded into night, never to return. The three great men he met had eventually journeyed back to their homelands. The only shepherds to be found were far outside the gates of Jerusalem. He himself had left the flocks behind and came to the city in search of a better life. Sarah, his wife of 11 years, and his 8 year old son Benjamin waited for him outside the temple every day without fail. He had been lucky enough to get any job, but one at the temple meant long-term security. When he left Bethlehem, 15 years had passed since the child in that manger. The death of his father had sealed his decision. He would never have imagined this better life, even if he had dreamt it. He knew in his heart that he had been assisted by God, not only on that special night but every day since the star. Azariah was a happy man. Passover was quickly approaching. As the town readied for the festivals, Azariah unloaded all sorts of animals for sacrifice at temple. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it. Between the normal rituals, and the surrounding revelry, it was as much as Azariah could do to keep to his assigned duties. His clothes, covered with the mess, were a testament to his hard work. During Passover, blood flowed in the streets of Jerusalem. The Roman occupation would do little to help in the aftermath. Cleaning up was not a prestigious position, but financial security and a good home more than compensated for his shame. For 14 years now, Azariah faithfully served his God and His garbage.
He met Sarah here, the daughter of the man who got him his position. They had played together when they were children, soon to be separated by distance and choices made. Her father Gyb was one of the shepherds the angels had visited that night. Gyb left the town of
Bethlehem with his family almost immediately after the events in the fields and at the stable, taking advantage of the magi Melchior’s generosity and the caravan heading towards Jerusalem. Caiaphas seemed obliged to his wise friend and placed Gyb in the maintenance department cleaning up after animals. Years later, Azariah called on Gyb in the same manner, once he had relocated to the city. When he was promoted from excrement to blood, he asked Gyb for permission to marry Sarah. Neither Sarah nor Azariah had ever entertained the idea of marriage and both were late in life when they married and started a family. Azariah loved his family. Azariah’s family loved him. Where once stood a small blond shepherd boy now stood a strong man, well matured and responsible. His journey had been relatively easy compared to most. The land and stock of sheep left to him when his father died empowered him through its sale. With enough money to start again (and then some), he followed the roads south to the Holy City to begin a new life. Every morning he now shuffled to temple, thankful for the family that he loved so much.
The path he took past Sha'ar Harachamim, the Gate of Mercy, was unusually busy for a day such as this. No celebration had been planned until later in the week. People were standing all about, crying out to a bearded man riding on a donkey.
“The prophecy, the prophecy is fulfilled,” screamed a woman near to him. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you,” they chanted, singing in chorus, all the while laying olive, willow and other branches before him as he passed.
He could not believe his eyes. This was not the end of it. The very same man who had rode into town through Sha'ar Harachamimjust a few days before was now driving out everyone who was trading in the temple square and inside the main entrance. He had abandoned his donkey. At some distance, Azariah watched silently from a wagon filled with young lambs for the korban Pesakh. Each beast was held waiting for sale as the rite of Passover sacrifice approached. Azariah was unsure what to do. In the same area that this man was defiling stood the tables and stalls used for their sale. These stalls had to be filled or he could face the anger of the account manager. Suddenly, the man turned and began to yell, “This is my Father’s house,” then started turning over the tables of money changers and the dealers in sacrifice. Azariah was stunned. Before the Roman soldiers arrived, the man and his entourage disappeared into the crowds. When those crowds calmed and the excitement was over, Azariah returned to his duties, hurrying to help restore the square to its place of commerce and trade in blood.
Sarah had heard the news and was waiting for Azariah with their son, just outside the temple later that afternoon when he finished his work. She had worried all day that her husband had somehow been involved in the ruckus at temple. She was relieved to learn he had not been compromised. After they arrived home, they all sat to dinner. Benjamin began to inquire as to this man who had drawn so much attention. Azariah hushed the boy, directing him to his meal, when Sarah interrupted with news of her own.
“In the market today, there were great rumblings of this man,” Sarah added. “They say he may be the Mašíah, come as the liberator against
“Such talk is treason, Sarah,” he said. “You cannot be heard saying such things or the wrath of
Romewill fall upon our house. This man is a criminal. If you had seen the damage he waged at the temple today, you would not speak such foolish things.”
Later in the evening, after Benjamin had been sent to bed, the couple went about their nightly chores. Sarah soaked then washed the filth and blood-drenched clothes her husband brought home with him each day from his duties at the temple. It seemed hard labour for her in attempting to remove the constant staining. It was a futile task. Azariah took his place near the window, peering out into the night sky. He often sat in this chair, searching for his star in the heavens, silently praying for it to reappear. It had once brought him comfort and safety, leading him home through the dark of the desert. This night, the words of Melchior rang loudly in his mind. As Azariah approached the stable that night, he was welcomed into the glow that illuminated the manger. The tail of the star had settled there. It was a marvel to see his father and Gyb standing only feet away from three royal men and their procession. All the people from the entire village crowded around to see the baby, all this for a newborn child. His father beckoned him to come forward and Azariah pushed through the people and past the beasts of burden as they lay round in the hay. The brightness of day filled the center of the manger; the glare was much too sharp for eyes having just faced the night. When his father urged him on to the cradle, Azariah stood trembling; he did not know what to make of it all. He was not afraid, but he paused as confusion overcame him.
“He is Immanuel child; God is with us,” said a tall Persian man dressed in fine garments and holding a silver jar filled with frankincense.
“But what does that mean?” questioned Azariah.
“He is the saviour, the Mašíah, come to make all men free. Stay your place and bow child, praise God and the newborn King,” answered the foreign lord.
Before dawn on the morning of the Passover feast, Azariah awoke to loud banging on the door of his home. In spite of his fear that the Romans had come, he opened it. When Gyb rushed in, excited and rather manic, he sighed in relief. He stumbled through the door.
“Azariah,” he yelled, “It’s Melchior, he is here and I have met with him.”
“The king Melchior, the one from that night in
Bethlehem?” asked his blond friend, rubbing what was left of any sleep from his eyes.
At that moment, two Persian guards entered the dwelling. The commotion had brought Sarah and Benjamin out of the quiet and Sarah held him at the back of the kitchen for safety.
“He wants to see you, Azariah. I told him you were here and he has sent us to retrieve you and bring you to his counsel,” claimed the obviously shaken man. Azariah began to dress and called out for Sarah, telling her he that had to go and not to worry.
“Father, may I go with you?” asked the small fair haired child in the corner.
“Benjamin,” he replied, “you must stay here with your mother and watch over her. I will try to fetch you both when I have met with Melchior. I most go now and no longer keep my old friend waiting.”
The caravan sat outside the city, near the gate that leads to
Gethsemane, just beyond the temple. 30 years had done little to Melchior, but for a few wrinkles in his brow and dashes of grey at his ears. It jutted out from beneath his head cover. Melchior could hardly believe that the man who stood before him was the little shepherd boy who had found his way to the manger that night. Gyb had seen Melchior leaving the temple by darkness, bidding goodbye to Caiaphas, so he approached his entourage seeking audience. Melchior knew him right away. Every detail of that night had been relived so often that it was now a part of the very being of this wise man. He had come so far, just as before, but this time there was no star to guide this journey.
“I have come seeking the child,” Melchior informed them.
“The child from the
Bethlehem?” asked Azariah.
“Yes, his time is near and I have come to witness the fulfillment of that foretold the night the star shone bright and the angels sang.”
“We do not know the man the child has become,” Azariah said.
“He is here,” Melchior revealed. “He is in prison, to be tried today for treason.”
The Persian nobleman had spies in the palace of Herod, spies who had summoned him when news of the man and the prophecy began to spread through the Galilean countryside. The son of Joseph and Mary, who preached of the coming Kingdom of God, was known near and far for his miracles and healings. Melchior’s henchmen confirmed he was indeed the child he had waited for. At 27, Melchior had travelled far to pay homage to the child, but now, as he approached his 60th year, travel was slower than it had been before. Melchior had hoped to share in the grown child’s ministry, but he had arrived too late. Consulting with Caiaphas had done nothing to change their minds.
“I had forgotten how harsh the road I once travelled to see the babe was,” he told the two men. “Harsher still to find there is nothing I can do for him now.”
Azariah could not believe his ears. The child who had filled his dreams for all these years was here in Jerusalem, captive at the Praetorium. Melchior arranged for the two men to join him that day, replacing them for work detail with his own men, at the permission of Caiaphas. They made their way through the gate, past the temple and into the heart of the Holy City. With the sunlight came the crowds, all heading towards the house of Pilate, the praefectus of Judaea. The governor resided close to the temple and the hordes of people grew dense as they approached the area. The steps of the judgment hall were thick with them. They lingered nervously about, like wolves before a frenzy. The men all took a place near the eastern stairs, at the open courtyard where they could attend to the trial unabated. Just then, a man was led away to be scourged, and the people who surrounded the gabbatha, on the platform out front of the palace, began to cheer. Azariah finally got to see his face. He stood breathless. It was impossible. The very same man, who had ridden the donkey through Sha'ar Harachamim and disturbed the temple merchants, was now being strung up before him in the courtyard, subjected to the scourge of 39 lashes. Azariah could not believe what he was seeing. With each lash of the knotted whip, the man said nothing, he did not cry out for mercy. When they brought him to the courtyard from the inner sanctum, Azariah was sure, he knew him instantly.
“This cannot be the child fully grown,” he said. “This man is a criminal, the one who attacked the money changers.”
“He is the child, Azariah,” Melchior said softly. “Today, that which the angels foretold will come to be. Through his suffering, we all will be free.”
When the guards had brought the man back to Pilate, he went out on the front steps of the Praetorium, where his judgment seat had been placed, and called together the Sanhedrim and the chief priests. Melchior dropped his head when Caiaphas entered. The man had been wrapped in red cloth and was holding a staff in his right hand. On his head they had placed a ring of thorns, like a crown, which clearly pierced the skin all about the man’s brow. There was so much blood that Azariah pictured him as if like one of the sheep he sent to slaughter as sacrifice. Slowly the man turned his head and their eyes met just briefly. His eyes, those magical eyes, he thought. They were the very same ones which had filled Azariah with peace and gladness, staring up from the cradle in the glow of that manger. He was instantly filled with the same wonder that the star had given him that night so many years ago. In the midst of all that pain, covered in all that blood and suffering, the man seemed to smile at him. Azariah knew, and, despite all he had seen, he recognized that this was the child now fully grown and standing before the crowds of his own people. Pilate stood and raised his right arm to silence the crowd.
“What would you have me do?” he asked.
“Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” rang through the air in a great uproar.
Pilate turned and walked to his judgment seat, dipped his hands into a gold basin and proceeded to wash them. He dried each off with a towel presented by his attendant. He walked over to the bearded man, and then a solider grabbed the man’s hair, raising his bloody head. Pilate then spoke to him.
“You have been convicted by acclamation,” he said. “Let them take him and crucify him, but I find no fault in him.”
The soldiers, who had flogged him, stripped him of his royal robe and led him into the crowds. The people cheered and screamed, all in one accord. They took the man down towards Herod’s palace and out of the city to the place of skulls, near the old cemetery on the outskirts of town. Azariah stood trembling; any peace the man had delivered to him was lost in a swarm of commotion. Melchior, Gyb and the entourage turned away. They did not wish to join the procession through the upper city and out into such desolation. Azariah followed just as he had done with the star over Bethlehem. He did not summon Sarah or his boy, as he had promised, well knowing the fate that laid waiting for this man outside the city walls. After the act, as he walked home, the rain fell hard and lightning clashed against the clouds. He could not tell his tears from the raindrops, which began to fall when the man finally died, hung on the wood like some calf over a fiery spit. He entered his home, kissed his wife and son and revealed to them the horror this day had brought. Sarah sat listening. She had heard the story of that wonderful night so many times she knew it by heart. She understood that her husband’s dream had died with the man. She knew he had never forgotten the path that he once followed from the dark. She hoped this would not break him. When he had finished, they all sat in silence, until Sarah broke the nothingness.
“Azariah,” she quietly questioned. “What was his name?”
Almost forty years had passed since the child from Bethlehem died as a man. Over those years, his name spread throughout the land and Azariah followed the fledgling movement that claimed Jesus as King and the saviour, the Mašíah. Some of the followers had even tried to convert him to this new “Way” of thinking. Azariah stood firm in what he would call his faith. It was uncommon for men to live as long as Azariah had. His son Benjamin had been killed in one of the Maccabee rebellions. His wife Sarah passed in her fifty-second year. Since then he lived with his grandchildren. His days of serving the Temple were long gone as was his need to assist them. He was old and tired yet somehow managed to hold on to life with a defiance most people in antiquity never had. The light of the star that led him long ago was still there in his mind and in his soul. He spent hours sitting, visiting that time and that place over and over again. He sat breathless as he watched the crucifixion play on in his mind. He would tremble at the thought of it. He often wondered if the man he remembered from that cross would appreciate the crusade playing out with those to whom he granted salvation. Azariah himself would never idolize anything that embraced a human being as the son of God, just like these “Christians” proclaimed across the territory. He was not an overtly religious man. He held more loyalty to that shining star than to any form or practice that men made. Rumours that Jesus had risen from his grave met doubt and questions and disdain. He was a Jew in name only. It was his tradition rather than his faith. He had seen so much pain, so much struggle that it was hard for him to believe in anything but the hard cold reality of life. Azariah was not a feeble man. Despite his age, his vigour remained. He was strong in spirit if not in body. Growing old had only convinced him that his experience as a child in Bethlehem was somehow divine or what men in modern times call supernatural or paranormal. It defined his reverence in terms of a tactile event. It was more than the law of Moses had ever given him. Still, his loyalty remained. The mere idea of worshipping Jesus as the son of God was blasphemous to him. Not because it was written but because it was practiced. He would have no other god.
Azariah watched the world go by, observing without partaking. Such time, such freedom he had not known since his days as a boy in
Bethlehem. The view had changed but little else had. The air of wonder, that sense of childlike innocence carried on despite the world around him. The world he now knew was bitter and hard. Anything good, anything right had disappeared as if it was some falsehood, gone back to the place from which it had come. More than sixty years of occupation built great religious tension between the Jewish populace and the Roman government. When renovation of the Second Temple was completed, many labourers fell on hard times. Coupled with the socio-political reality of that time, it lead to the impoverishment of the Jewish peasantry and rebellion. Azariah knew of the first Jewish revolt. His friends, members of his family, even some women he knew all stood hand in hand against the tyranny of Rome. If only he were younger, if only he could fight. For four years the rebellion lingered. The war was not only fought between the Romans and the Jews, it was a class struggle. All his years working at the Temple only encouraged doubt of the high priesthood. Now the masses held to the same. The Roman occupation was under constant assault right up to the end. Azariah sat watching as the Temple burnedto the ground. This city of God no longer held anything for him. He convinced his family to return to Bethlehemwhere his lineage had begun. His father, Gyb and Sarah were all laid to rest in the cemetery just outside of town. They had all made this trip before. This journey would not return to Jerusalem. The purchase of his father’s old bavith meant safety and a familiar place to hide. Azariah had always kept his money secret. How ironic the very sheep that once saved him would now do so in turn. It wasn’t much but it would do. The journey from Holy Jerusalem to the city of David was one day’s travel. The caravan headed north into the wilderness. Azariah knew the path home. He had walked it in his mind 10,000 times. The 10 km trek through this part of the kingdom of Judah was perilous and war torn. Despite the danger, they finally arrived at the outer rim of the city. Azariah almost cried as they passed the old pens on the outskirts of town. He could see himself surrounded by the flock, he could see himself chasing the star. Everywhere around him was his father, the manger and the star leading the way. Azariah was finally home.
Palestine winter did not affect his choice to go outside. Almost two months had passed since the destruction of the Temple and three weeks had come and gone since the return to Bethlehem. He felt right at home, filled with comfort and with joy. He had not been this happy since before the death of his wife Sarah. His sadness had carried on for decades. His only hope, his only delight was the star of wonder he had experienced that night so long ago. It now called to him, daring him to seek and find. He had waited for a perfect time to skip out into his memories. He plotted his escape then like a thief in the night, he disappeared into the bitter chill of a winter’s mist. He was as silent as his cracking joints would allow him to be. He wrapped himself until he was cozy and headed out on his adventure. He didn’t alert anyone and his mission was just as secret. He carried nothing with him, as if he knew. He just knew. He walked slowly but with great determination. There was no tail of a star to guide him this time. He hoped it would be there when he arrived but the manger, on the far end of the North camp, held nothing but some cows and a few feeding cradles. It wasn’t even the original structure.
The trip had done its best on Azariah. He was much too weak to have journeyed so all alone. As he approached the shelter, Azariah fell to the ground out of exhaustion. The way had been tootrying for this weary form. He met silence on the way down. The light pierced his eyelids, waking him with a jolt. There it was, so bright and so charming, the star had returned to guide him once again. He stood, stronger than he had been before.
He looked about and the world seemed to have found its original place again. The manger had returned, the animals had returned, everything was exactly the same as it had been on that magical night. Suddenly, people were everywhere. The crowd held faces he had not seen in many years. His father was there, Gyb was there. He looked through the crowd for Sarah, but only those present on that special night appeared before him. It was like a dream, an illusion but somehow he knew it was for real. He moved gracefully into the heart of star’s tail. There was no baby wrapped in swaddling clothes to greet him. Instead, the baby had become a man, the same man he had known forever but never really met. The well-known stranger looked at Azariah and held out his hand.
Just outside the city gates, the graveyard holds tales of the many and a voice for the few. It is mostly silent, like dead men can be. He rests there now. Sarah rests near him. They are reunited in the Otherland. If you ask about, the local townsfolk will tell you of that night so long ago when the star of wonder shone bright and the kings and wise men met a host of angels. They would tell you about the sheepherders and the manger and the baby king. If you listen hard enough, the men of
Bethlehem will tell you another story. A tale about the light in the desert, the warmth of some sheep and the journey of the littlest shepherd.